Maybe they would have lost anyway. In fact, they probably would have. After scoring a single touchdown through 59 minutes, going the length of the field against one of, if not the best, defenses in the NFL would have taken nothing short of a miracle. Still, unlikely as a game-tying touchdown would have been, the Cowboys didn’t make it easy on themselves, shooting themselves in the foot with constant mental mistakes, none bigger than on their final play, a disastrously executed, galaxy-brained blunder that went exactly as you’d expect.
Drawn up by coach Mike McCarthy, the play was doomed from the start, an ill-conceived, train wreck of a concept that never should have seen the light of day. With their backs against the wall, needing to span 76 yards in only six seconds (then praying their head case of a kicker would sink the tying PAT to force overtime), it’s no surprise the Cowboys resorted to trickery, hoping to catch the Niners off guard with a bizarre formation, spreading their offensive linemen out wide while slotting running back Ezekiel Elliott under center. McCarthy even had a chance to audible to a different play after San Francisco spent its second of three timeouts, but stayed true to his vision, only for Zeke (shouldering the load for injured teammate Tony Pollard) to get steamrolled by Azeez Al-Shaair at the line of scrimmage, resulting in an anticlimactic, eight-yard checkdown to undrafted rookie KaVontae Turpin.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for what transpired in Silicon Valley, starting with tight end Dalton Schultz, who imploded with two brain-melting gaffes in succession, costing Dallas valuable seconds by not getting out of bounds after a short pickup down the right sideline, then losing the plot again by lazily snagging another pass from Dak Prescott, but only keeping one foot in bounds. While Schultz did score Dallas’ lone touchdown in the losing effort, he didn’t measure up to his 49ers counterpart, George Kittle, whose second-half heroics included one of the great concentration plays you’ll ever see.
The Cowboys’ fateful final play was predictably mocked on social media, drawing unflattering comparisons to a similar debacle years earlier, when Colts coach Chuck Pagano tried to outsmart Bill Belichick on fourth down, only to have it blow up in his face.
McCarthy was in no mood after the game, stiff-arming a camera man on his way off the field, a stunt he would later apologize for.
It wasn’t one play that lost the Cowboys their season, though they had their chances, squandering countless opportunities against a team starting its third-string quarterback. Unfortunately, this feeling has become all too familiar to Cowboys fans, who, since their 90s heyday, have weathered decades of disappointment, with Sunday representing the latest in a long line of heartbreaking defeats, extending Dallas’ drought to 12 straight playoff appearances without reaching the conference championship.